Sir Thomas Browne Against Error: An Apology for Complexity


  • Giuliana Iannaccaro Università degli Studi di Milano


Parole chiave:

error, Sir Thomas Browne, Pseudodoxia Epidemica, complexity, epistemology, language and rhetoric


In 1646 Sir Thomas Browne published his Pseudodoxia Epidemica, a broad, somewhat encyclopedic catalogue of errors divided into seven books. Browne intended his work as “Enquiries into Vulgar and Common Errors” to help discourage “radicated beliefs” – that is, received opinions based on popular credulity and the unchallenged authority of tradition. Far from being dogmatic and assertive, the treatise engages the modern reader for its defence of open debate and of the value of contradiction; actually, Pseudodoxia appears deeply in tune with the epistemological uncertainty of our times for its complex, relativising and even dubitative approach to all things human. Browne endorses the idea that uncritical acceptance of received notions about the world hinders the advancement of learning; at the same time, though, a rigidly straight path – a unique, simplified method to decipher reality – equally perverts knowledge and is the source of misapprehension and mystification. Building on recent studies on his style and his connection with a culturally and politically convulsed historical period, the present contribution discusses Browne’s notion of complexity and highlights exemplary passages in which he discusses the main source of error: the human tendency to simplify what is complex, thus reducing the interpretation of notions, signs and phenomena to a one-sided and necessarily inadequate undertaking.

Biografia autore

Giuliana Iannaccaro, Università degli Studi di Milano

Giuliana Iannaccaro is Associate Professor of English Literature and Anglophone Literatures at the Università degli Studi di Milano. Her publications in the field of early modern studies include a monograph on gender rhetoric between 1580 and 1640 (La morsa del paradosso, 1997), a number of articles on political and religious controversial literature, the translation into Italian and co-editing of John Foxe’s account of Anne Askew’s examinations and execution (Parole di fuoco, 2002), and a book on the writings of the religious radicals of the English Revolution (Ombre e sostanza, 2003). She has recently contributed two essays on Elizabeth I’s foreign correspondence (2014) and one on Thomas Coryat in Italy (2015).




Come citare

Iannaccaro, Giuliana. 2017. «Sir Thomas Browne Against Error: An Apology for Complexity». Altre Modernità, aprile, 204-18.



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